Referring to Guy Ritchie’s rather trivial take on the Matter of Britain, here are the three most interesting filmed versions of the tale.
Director John Boorman was always up to no good in the film world, both to the medium’s benefit (Point Blank) and its detriment (Exorcist II), although I have to admit that Zardoz belongs in the annals of essential cinema simply as an artifact of the medium at its most casually disregarding common-sense. Take Excalibur, which occupies Boorman’s customary mode of multi-aesthetic pile-up, where the foliage of legend abounds, the effect of which is a loopy, nonsensical gamble, excessive and adjacent to hallucination. An early battle is staged as a conundrum, not quite as wonderfully unstable as the abstract battle in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight but in the same cul-de-sac, especially when judged by blockbuster standards. Silhouettes poised with sinister intent, devoid of human specificity, are an early indication of Boorman’s mythic inclinations and his treatment of the material as spiritual divination. Despite Boorman never having directed in this genre before, I could show you a highlight reel and give you the rough release date and you, the hypothetical connoisseur of gonzo cinema, might well be able to narrow it down to Boorman in a heartbeat. There’s also enough vaginal imagery to perk any mid-century psychoanalyst’s ears up; It’s that kind of motion picture. It’s as though Boorman received the film fully formed through divine intervention.
The folly of the writer would be to dare to describe this all as a straightforward narrative rather than acquiesce to Boorman’s oblong void of curiosities and oddities. Make no mistake, although it is slightly conciliatory to conventional norms compared to, say, the psychotically maniacal Zardoz, Excalibur is very much an example of cinematic recidivism from Boorman returning to his old ways. He treats Excalibur not as an opportunity to move from the ditch to the middle-of-the-road but to turn the Arthurian legend into Icarus. Excalibur dares confront the sun with its ambition, and, sure, it’s often blinded and begins to melt even as it is coalescing. But this odd, giant calamity of a film sparks an alchemic energy from its copious frissons, including juxtapositions and convergences of time, texture, character, and symbol. It certainly never cuts a reasonable figure, but would anyone want it any other way when John Boorman is concerned?
Aiming for the shape and temperature of the legends themselves, Excalibur eschews a central protagonist in the conventional sense and, instead, hop-skips, lunges, and juts forward in time at lop-sided intervals, weaving a cast of characters into its dense and sometimes wondrous whatzit, beginning with Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) and his opposite the Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave), who is tricked by Uther with the help of Merlin (Nicol Williamson) on the condition that Merlin receive the offspring of this trickery (Merlin helps Uther bed the Duke’s wife, and he wants the kid in return). A sudden flash of an edit, so to speak, and we’re years later, with Ector (Clive Swift) and his two children Kay (Niall O’Brien) and, of more importance, Arthur (Nigel Terry), and Arthur meets the fair Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) set against the backdrop of an invasion of her father’s kingdom. A potential climax is afoot, but that’s not roundabout enough for Boorman. So, naturally, we scurry off to years later once again with Arthur (still Terry) besting Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), who joins Arthur as a Knight of the Round Table, who also falls in love with Guenevere. But wait! They all become a pawn (as does everyone) in a plot by Morgana Le Fay (Helen Mirren) to trick her half-brother Arthur, who is, by the way, Uther’s child out of wedlock, if you didn’t already catch that. The whole film has that rambling, digressive tempo, recollecting not only the content of the Matter of Britain but its form shooting between moments that matter more than the scarce connective tissue. We’re in rarefied company here, and if no Boorman production could truly fire on all cylinders, it isn’t for want of trying. Boorman’s interests are clearly in the emotional ephemera that he forces center-stage, the undercurrents of frustration and lust and the cyclical overlaps in timespans and lives that repeat over rather than advancing.
Clearly, Boorman “gets” that the Arthurian myth is largely meaningful only insofar as it sparkles with metaphor and insinuation, and boy does he give it to us. Excalibur is drenched (drowned even) in symbolically-laden imagery and pregnant refrains to watery graves, beginnings, transformations, resting points, exactly the variant of Jungian symbolism that can fell or enchant a Boorman film depending on how much Boorman’s symbolism gets ahead of him. Here, he doctors the mythology up in poetic refrains, pairings, recurring motifs, and all manner of literate divinations that opt to bridge the gap between ‘70s auteur exercise and ‘80s blockbuster. (It comes to mind that 1981 may have been the only year where a meaningful balance could be struck). All that, and an obvious circle motif suggesting not only a continuity of time but a circular returning to prior points, played out narratively via Uther and Arthur’s semi-corollary achievements and the endless cycle of success and failure that forms the backbone of the narrative trajectory.
It’s old-school chicanery, really, and not all that enchanting in the abstract, but Boorman – doing the one thing you could always trust him to do – plunges in head-first and with feverish energy. In lieu of a barn-burning action pic, he imagines a Tarkovskian play of contradictory themes exposed as co-conspirators, with cross-cutting uniting, for instance, a character dying in fire and another escaping from fire in a rush of animating energy, as if being gifted the life-blood of fire itself. Life and death are not so different after all, and all that thematic huffing and puffin. The heady and deeply literate but also cinematic interplay of ideas, motifs, themes, and references obviously fill a classicist hole in Boorman’s heart, and the film is so thick-on-the-ground with these cosmic questions about interlocking time and space that it can be difficult to machete through the thick fog of allusion to reach the actual emotion at the core of the characters. But, sometimes, we go to films for zest, and if Boorman was good for one thing, it was establishing a banter with the lost corners of cinema where emotional currents and abstractions reign supreme over logic or the surge of narrative.
It’s undeniably filled with questions and stutters. For one, the disconnect between the acting and the film is thoroughly jostling, with many of the performers adopting a quasi-naturalistic texture that threatens the primeval, mythic core of the film. But the contrast between blaring extraversion and low-to-the-ground introspection is certainly enrapturing on the screen, if nothing else, and it partially contributes to the divinely-inspired jumble laid out for us. Once again, this is an essentially primeval take on a mythic vision, assaulting you – like a vision – with its sheer charisma of presence even though it reeks of absence and aporia. Its slippery attitude toward its own existence is an essential part of the whole.